That Time Purim Revelers in New York Were Arrested For Fancy Dress, 1868

This picture appeared in an American newspaper on April 1, 1865. The wood engraving is captioned, “The Hebrew Purim Ball at the Academy of Music, March 14.” From Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper, printed in New York, NY (source)

For those who don’t know, today is Purim, a Jewish festival in which we commemorate the salvation of the Jewish people in ancient Persia from Haman’s plot “to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women, in a single day,” as recorded in the Megillah (book of Esther).

One of the customs of the day is to dress up, which I assume is no problem for my Jewish brethren in most of the diaspora. But believe it or not, back in 1868 in the now-Jewish “paradise” of New York, it was no picnic!

But not to worry! This was not a manifestation of antisemitism – it was pursuant to an actual law of the day

The law actually made it back in to the news years back, during the Occupy Wall Street protests.

The approach of Halloween together with recent news that the last scheduled criminal case stemming from the arrests of hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protestors had been dismissed, has swung the spotlight of history back on New York’s anti-mask law.

It was one of the first tools used by New York City police to break up the Occupy Wall Street protest when it began in September, two years ago. Within days of donning Guy Fawkes masks, demonstrators were charged by police for violating the anti-mask law, section 240.35(4) of the New York Penal Law. Its origins go back to a statute passed in 1845 to suppress armed uprisings by tenant farmers in the Hudson Valley who were using disguises to attack law enforcement officers.

The anti-rent movement died out in the mid-1850’s; however, the anti-mask law remained in force. As time passed, the legislature modified it but left its essential provisions in place. For example, in 1882, a person arrested for wearing a mask could still receive a six month jail term but if a judge ruled that the mask wearer was “not a notorious offender,” the sentence might be reduced to six months of hard labor in the county, city, town or village poor house.

The anti-mask law was reenacted in its present form in 1965.


And how does the anti-mask law affect Halloween activities? Fortunately for all the potential super hero and scary creature look-alikes, the statute does not apply to “a masquerade party or like entertainment,” and it never has. In 1845, the anti-mask law excepted “any peaceable assemblage for any masquerade or fancy dress ball or other entertainment.”

So I am not entirely sure how it could be the basis for the arrest of the Purim revelers. If I had more time, I would look into this further, but I have my own Purim celebrations to prepare for!


David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media